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Where Forests Are Foes

Tree farming in Chile has displaced thousands of indigenous Mapuche Indians. But it has also fueled a rebirth of activism and pride.

March 12, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

COLLIPULLI, Chile — Because eucalyptus trees are thirsty, Victor Ancalaf became a rebel.

Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one of the largest forestry companies in South America, the trees suck the water out of the ground, killing off streams and making wells run dry in this corner of Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian leaders, that is one indignity too many.

So every now and then, the Mapuche set ablaze the trees and the trucks of companies that plant them. Ancalaf is charged with burning five vehicles as part of a smoldering, low-tech war that also is being fought with slingshots, chain saws and homemade shotguns.

Just as often, however, the Mapuche fight back with peaceful means. Medicine women called machis pray for the spirits of the water and the earth to stand fast against the "exotic species" transplanted from North America and Australia. On the Internet, activists spread word of their struggles, making allies in Sweden, France and other countries where leftists have ties to Latin American compatriots.

"We've entered into a period of darkness of water, and this is bringing us to the brink of extinction," said Rayen Kuyeh, a Mapuche poet and playwright. "If wanting to defend the spirits of the water, the trees, the birds, the earth and the air makes me a terrorist, then go ahead and call me a terrorist."

The environmental impact of commercial tree farming in Chile has helped feed a renaissance of activism and cultural pride among the nation's 1 million Mapuche, the original inhabitants of what is now south-central Chile and parts of Argentina. The Mapuche held off European incursions onto their land for centuries, signing a 1641 treaty with the Spanish crown that was later thrown out by an independent Chile, before the tribe was finally vanquished in the late 19th century.

Relegated to reservations -- called "reductions" here -- most Mapuche now work as impoverished farmers or field hands or live as a marginalized minority in Chilean cities.

"Our objective is the recuperation of the territory of the Mapuche people," Ancalaf, 40, said in a jailhouse interview. "We want to control our destiny and shape our future according to the cosmology of our people."

Held without trial since November under anti-terrorism laws passed during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Ancalaf and a dozen other militant leaders have become heroes to many Mapuche, even those who disagree with their tactics.

"The Chilean state is criminalizing the struggle of the Mapuche," said Alfredo Seguel, a former government worker and a member now of Konapewman Mapuche, a group of university-trained professionals who have forgone big-city life to return to their ethnic roots.

"The movement to recuperate our territory isn't just political," he added. "It's also a social, cultural and religious struggle."

In the last few years, the Mapuche have won mayoral and city council elections for the first time. In the city of Temuco, Mapuche university students have taken over abandoned properties and established communal homes.

Activists have opened a Mapuche pharmacy in Temuco to dispense traditional herbal medicines that are disappearing in the wild in part because of the effects of tree farms, which now cover millions of acres of the Mapuche's ancestral land.

Impoverished indigenous farmers have formed tribal councils to draft town constitutions and lobby local governments for the return of communal land. In all, there are as many as 100 local and regional Mapuche organizations in this region of Chile.

"We are seeing a revitalization of all aspects of Mapuche culture, even of the Mapuche language, which was beginning to die out," said Alejandro Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in Temuco.

"Until recently, Mapuche parents wouldn't let their children speak Mapudungun because having a Mapuche accent when you spoke Spanish was a sign of backwardness," Herrera added. "Now, we see groups of young people forming study circles to learn the language."

Pablo Huaiquilao is from a Mapuche family that left its impoverished rural village two generations ago. In college, he met other students who were starting to embrace their tribal identity.

"I wanted to know who I was, where I came from," he said. So he sat down and talked with his grandmother. She spun a familial epic of land takeovers, massacres and the time Swiss colonists -- sent by the Chilean government as homesteaders -- set fire to the village's wheat harvest.

"It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," he said.

In the Chilean media, the modern "Mapuche conflict" is most often portrayed as a struggle between the order and reason of the country's European heritage and an indigenous culture dominated by "superstition" and violence.

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